An obstetrician, Coles was fascinated with the opposite of the very early moments of life: he wanted to figure out how it was that some people could live healthy lives to very advanced ages — 110 or more, also known as supercentenarians. While about 1 in 10,000 people make it to 100 years old, only about 1 in 5 million people make it to 110. To study them, he created the Gerontology Research Group at the UCLA School of Medicine. First, he and his team worked to find out if people who claimed extremely old age really were that old, and the answer was often no. Coles would travel to meet the people who volunteered for his study to verify their claims. “We’ve found evidence of people wanting early Social Security, men claiming to be older in order to join the military, a woman claiming to be her aunt, some people just wanting to be famous,” said Robert Young, a researcher who helped Coles by building family trees and whatever else it took to verify claimed ages.
But some claims were true: by 2008 he identified 64 women and 11 men who were true supercentenarians, and he studied them to determine what enabled them to live long lives. “These individuals are a very precious resource for humanity,” Coles said, “and we need to act quickly; otherwise, whatever they have to teach us will be gone forever.” Why act so fast? Because once someone gets to 110 years old, the odds they will die in the next year are 50-50. The main factor Coles found supporting longevity is difficult to replicate: “They were very good at choosing their parents,” he said — good genetics. “Supercentenarians have practically nothing else in common, regardless of what they tell us is their self-attributed ‘secret’ to long life.” The research isn’t completed, but they have found a few common traits. “These people did not inwardize stress,” says Prof. Steven Clarke, who worked with Coles at UCLA. “They gave stress to others.” The extreme elderly are also tough: they press on, rather than whine about the little things. When Coles was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he pressed on too — and made arrangements for his body to be frozen, in hopes that he could be revived once his cancer could be cured, “maybe be able to take science forward one day,” said his wife, Natalie. Dr. Coles died December 3, at 73.